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The Sunday Times

January 6th, 2013

Under the swish of Grey’s cane is comfort reading posing as porn

‘Call yourself a journalist,” said a fellow guest with festive aggression late one night over the new year, “and you haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey?” I certainly had not. I had spent months deliberately ignoring it, as far as possible. Of course that has been difficult. It has become Britain’s bestselling book to date, with 5.3m copies sold here and 65m copies worldwide; the entire Shades trilogy will soon be turned into a film.

The Travelodge hotel chain claims that of the 21,800 books left in its rooms last year, 7,000 were Shades of Grey; that is almost one in three and a striking indication of market penetration. However, mega-success is not necessarily a recommendation — I can’t bear Harry Potter, for instance. And as Fifty Shades has been widely mocked as appallingly written, mass-market mummy porn and sadomasochism lite, it had seemed a book well worth avoiding. Only the angry protests that it was a betrayal of feminism had aroused my interest.

I did ask my most literary (and glamorous) friend whether she had read it; to my astonishment she said she had and thought it rather good because it dealt with what most women really want. That being a highly contentious question, which has baffled countless people including Sigmund Freud, I demanded to know what it was; she replied that it was submission to a dominant man. So one way and another I thought, perhaps I ought to start paying attention to Fifty Shades of Grey. Reader, I read it.

At first it seemed dull as well as badly written and — oddly enough for a book widely hyped as sexually transgressive — nothing even faintly erotic happens until page 51, when the young heroine Anastasia Steele realises she wants to be kissed by the rich, handsome hero Christian Grey. This seems rather slow going for a dirty novel. It isn’t until nearly page 100 that the hero takes the heroine’s virginity in an entirely wholesome, responsible and romantic manner — what he would call vanilla sex. The brimstone and treacle rough stuff is presumably yet to come.

Although the hero does reveal at this time a glimpse of his “red room of pain” and a list of his alarming sexual demands, along with repeated warnings against himself, anodyne vanilla prevails for page after page. Anastasia wonders at great length whether to sign his sado-masochistic sex slave contract and whether pain and submission are what her secret self truly craves; meanwhile, the hero impatiently waits.

During this time the reader, like the heroine, is treated to a mid-market excursion round the alpha-male billionaire life with mentions of sleek cars, first editions, sharp clothes, private planes and an egg-shaped bath. She is impressed: this is an aspirational book. It’s not until the final pages that the suspense is ended: at last, even though Anastasia has not signed the contract, Christian goes much, much too far with a cane and Anastasia rushes out in pain, rage and grief. This assault makes her see finally that Christian is incapable of love. He has always said so. They part. The end.

Why has such stuff sold so astonishingly well? About a third of the way in I began to understand. Either by design or by accident, the author has managed to weave together all kinds of archetypal and/or bestselling strands from all kinds of writing, both good and bad. Simple and unsophisticated though the story seems, it works on many levels and there is something for almost everybody — at least for almost every woman.

Most importantly this is a how-to book for women, of how to enjoy sex from vanilla to a taste of brimstone and treacle: oddly enough, the wilder shores of BDSM (bondage, domination and sado-masochism) get no more than a mention in Fifty Shades but — to judge from my sometime reviewing of how-to books — this one will be for many women a useful sex manual gently presented under the respectable cover of a romantic novel. I suspect this is a large part of its appeal.

At the same time, threads of several fairy stories are interwoven in the stuff of the book, lending it their hidden power with their themes of transformation. (Transformation is the holy grail of the how-to book, so this is where the two genres meet.) Anastasia is Cinderella: she is poor; her father is dead; her mother is far away on husband No 4. She must borrow clothes from her rich friend to go to her first ball with the prince. Christian is King Cophetua, plucking the beggar girl from obscurity and her worn-out VW Beetle to the fantasy life of the alpha male and the executive plane.

Anastasia is also the ugly duckling of fairy tale: she is pale, underconfident, skinny, scruffy and clumsy, falling inelegantly through a door onto the prince’s feet at first meeting and vomiting copiously in front of him soon afterwards. Yet before long she is revealed to be a beautiful swan. Meanwhile, the prince turns into a deviant frog because he doesn’t please the princess.

As well as the frog, Christian is also the little boy lost who has been unspeakably damaged in childhood — the industrious author of Fifty Shades even manages to get child abuse in. This puts him in line with a long bestselling fictional tradition of the abused and damaged male — Heathcliff, Max de Winter — who is always exciting in his mysterious harshness and raises the question of whether he can be saved by the love of a good woman: much of Anastasia’s hesitation about signing the sex contract has to do with her wondering whether she can change her damaged frog.

There’s also a moral or two for most people, even for feminists. Anastasia may fantasise about submission and even experiment with it a little, but she walks out on the man she loves because he is obsessed with dominating her. This is hardly a celebration of violence against women or of female subordination, as some have claimed.

So Fifty Shades could be seen as a feminist text. But equally the book indulges (up to a safe and hygienic point) the feelings of women who don’t accept feminist strictures about female sexuality — who are intrigued by submission or who do not always want to wear the feminist trousers. Finally, the heroine gives up riches and passion in favour of self-respect. The author has skilfully covered almost the entire female book market, apart from the tiny literary sector. If this was by design rather than by accident, she has worked out a winning formula. It’s comfort reading posing as porn.

minette.marrin@sunday-times.co.uk